Copying vs Reference
Jul 17 2011

As many of you probably know, there is a well known fantasy artist who recently was accused of pasting elements of several other peers works into her own and painting over them. This artist has since sold these images in her books. Now this news did interest me as I was a fan of her work, but it interests me even more as one of the artists she is now accused of stealing from. Whether her affirmation that she hand painted everything is true or not, it did get me thinking that perhaps this is a great time for healthy discussion about the use of “reference”.

Now there is a large divide in the world of art. Those who happily use reference images they find online and those that shun the practice. In case you wondering, I put myself in the “happily uses online ref” category. Let me explain why.

I define reference as some sort of imagery, whether perceived naturally or through photos/videos, which is used to help draw/paint/sculpt a new piece of art. Referring could mean a quick glance to establish a similar mood, color combinations, or to brush up on creature anatomy, or it could be in depth copying with methods such as “gridding” where the image looked upon is copied almost exactly. (Tracing is a different method and involves copying and pasting, projecting, and painting over other imagery and is another discussion altogether).

Now the debate isn’t so much about either method, but whether or not the person using said imagery happens to have permission to use copyrighted images for reference or tracing/painting over. The answer may surprise you. Under most copyright laws in the world, as long as the imagery created is a “derivative” work and not a copy, it can be used as reference but copying and pasting someone’s work into your own without permission is a much more dangerous practice. However it is important to mention that what is allowed under law is not necessarily looked upon with acceptance in prominent art communities.

Now I had a professor in college who does commercial art for clients based in California including Disney and other big name movies. As someone in the field, he explained to us that art directors don’t care if you don’t know how to draw a turtle from memory or not, if you have a project due at the end of the week you had better have an anatomically correct rendering of a turtle. Say there are no turtles around–you had better humble yourself and find some online reference. So how do you use online reference and still feel good about yourself at the end of the day? I find the key element to all of this, is to what extent you refer to something.

Referring to me, means looking at something, learning from it, and making something new. It means creating something similar with different angles and perspective, lighting, or mood. It’s okay to look at online reference, and even other artwork. For example, below I have two images, one a reference image I used to create the other.

The images are almost identical in mood and color combinations but entirely different in every other way. This type of referring is usually called inspiration but it is reference all the same.

The best way to use exact reference, as my professor explained, is to build up your own library of stock photos, or buy them online if you must refer to something directly. No amount of reasoning can save your hind end should you use something copyrighted and get your publisher sued.

Now there are some times when copying directly can be a good thing, like when doing master studies. Studies however, are used for learning and not for making money. Even fan art, which I have done my fare share of in the past, can be a fun release provided you give credit where credit is due and don’t profit off of your work.

So where do you draw the line with reference?

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3 thoughts on “Copying vs Reference

  1. Unless I'm doing a master study or using reference photos I've shot myself, I won't use a grid. I much prefer to eyeball because it means I won't be tempted to stick too close, and I almost always use more than one reference photo anyway (a lot more). You know what it's like – you can NEVER find a photo that matches your sketch or thumbnail properly. The lighting is off, or the clothing, or that one arm, etc etc.

    You are right in that often your employer doesn't care how you get the job done as long as you GET it done, but personally I think if you're good enough to be employed as an artist in the first place, you should be good enough to Google search three photos of a turtle and then paint one from scratch using them as reference. There are completely royalty free texture sites out there if you need help faking photo-realism on the spot. And I can't speak for all employers, but mine has had trouble with long-gone employees when the work they have left behind proves not to be their own, and has to be redone. So the culprits may as well have blown that deadline and done it right the first time, since the man hours are being spent on it anyway.

    I'm definitely with you on the "happily using online reference" camp, though. I don't have a photographic memory or the years of experience (yet) to have a complete reference image gallery in my head, and five minutes looking at photo reference can give such a huge boost to my understanding. To keep myself from getting too attached to one reference image, I make sure I always have several variations to choose from (I will get more than one of the pose, for example, or get a bunch of photos of silk draping). It means I don't rely too much on one image and teaches me more about what I'm painting.

  2. So very true Louisa. Sounds like your methods mirror mine exactly.

    I actually just came across a post at and someone asked if other people ever have other people's artwork up in photoshop while they work. The overwhelming answer- all the time.

    Inspiration and reference can be a wonderful thing. It's my hope to break my reliance on it in the future, but like you I have yet to master several things and reference can close the gap.

  3. Since I am but a beginner in digital painting, I constantly need to use references. I'd rather not, but I'm not that good to skip that step, since everything I start painting eventually turns out off in a way. I, too, have a hard time finding the right reference photos indeed, so I sometimes either look at myself into the mirror, or, when I can't seem to remember the details, I take a photo and refer to it afterwards. Of course, that only works when I'm painting the female body.
    Anyway, generally speaking, I would look at other people's work purely for inspiration and if possible to learn some technique or something. Apparently, I'm not rude enough to even think about stealing someone else's work!

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